France 1859 – 1891
The little peasant in blue (The jockey)
[Le petit paysan en bleu (Le jockey)] c. 1882
oil on canvas
canvas 46.0 (h) x 38.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Robert Schmit 1982
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Towards the end of the summer of 1881, Seurat stayed at the small village of Pontaubert in Burgundy with his friend Edmond Aman-Jean. According to the art critic Félix Fénéon, who owned this painting, the subject of the canvas is a young boy from the region.1 It was likely that Seurat returned to Paris with the painting and completed it the following year. Seurat and Aman-Jean had met while studying at the atelier Henri Lehmann—a prerequisite to their enrolling at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Both had suffered under the ‘iron rule’ of Lehmann. Emphasis on line and drawing was the hallmark of Lehmann’s teaching, while colour was considered an ornament. Because of their rigid and backward-looking studies, Seurat sought inspiration elsewhere.
The work has been known as both The little peasant in blue and The jockey.2 The influence of the Barbizon master Jean-François Millet was particularly notable in Seurat’s art of the early 1880s. Millet had depicted peasants working in the fields; herding animals, reaping crops, and had also portrayed workers breaking stones. Seurat followed suit. This painting, unlike many of Seurat’s scenes of peasants, does not show the young boy actively toiling in the fields. Instead, the small figure simply stares out at the viewer, devoid of character, his features reduced to the essentials. Supporting the alternate suggestion that the subject is a jockey, the youth is dressed in a blue coat with a white high collar, which could be racing silks; and he could be wearing a jockey’s cap.
In April 1879, along with his friends Ernest Laurent and Aman-Jean, Seurat visited the fourth Impressionist exhibition at 28 Avenue de l’Opera. The art students experienced an ‘unexpected and profound shock’ in response to the work they encountered, ultimately leading to the abandonment of their studies with Lehmann.3 The exhibition effected Seurat’s development in the early 1880s in terms of his brushwork, adoption of colour and subject matter.
While there is an emphasis on the silhouette for his figure, Seurat has adopted a palette of blues, green, flesh-pinks and browns, applied with cross-strokes of the brush. This criss-cross brushwork, which Seurat termed ‘broom swept’ (balayé), suggests the influence which the New Painting methods of Impressionism had on the young Seurat, and which would lead him in new directions for the remainder of his short life.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Robert L. Herbert, Françoise Cachin, Anne Distel et al., Georges Seurat, 1859–1891, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art 1991, cat. 80, pp. 115–16.
- The catalogue raisonné for Seurat’ paintings, C.M. de Hauke, Seurat et son oeuvre, Paris: Gründ 1961, vol. 1, cat. 16, p. 10, lists the work as follows, Le petit paysan en bleu. Hermann Jedding in Seurat, Milan: Uffici Press c. 1950, p. 10 gives the title as Le jockey.
- In that exhibition, Degas had works on his modern-day theme of a race course. Léon Rosenthal, ‘Ernest Laurent’, Art et décoration, vol. 29, 1911, p. 66. The Impressionists were described as ‘nevrosés’ (‘loopy’), while the effect on the young art students was ‘un choc inattendu et profond’; see also William Innes Homer, Seurat and the science of painting, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press 1978, pp. 51–4.